The Abyss of Human Illusion

By Gilbert Sorrentino (Coffee House, $14.95 paperback)

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<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

The vastly underappreciated, Bay Ridge--born Gilbert Sorrentino succumbed to cancer in 2006. The Abyss of Human Illusion—a series of vignettes with a mildly experimental structure (they are followed by explanatory endnotes)—is Sorrentino’s final and most death-haunted work. There’s a hint of autobiography here, but don’t expect nostalgic reminiscence. This is the same Sorrentino whose bilious 1971 masterpiece, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, skewered the New York literary establishment. Abyss (which borrows its title from Henry James) finds Sorrentino in familiar territory: Brooklyn artists, writers, alcoholics, adulterers and former military men agonize over failed marriages, futile manuscripts and faulty bodies.

Sorrentino hits inventive and unsentimental high notes with these vignettes. A woman cleans her father’s bloody vomit from the street while he’s dying in a doctor’s car. A man paints his entire apartment “suicidal green” to convince himself that he’s still alive. A cancer-ridden writer returns to cigarettes, finally guilt-free. But there’s more going on than an obsession with human frailty. Sorrentino, a vigorous stylist, once wrote that “form invents content,” and here, the vignettes get incrementally longer: The first is 130 words; the last is 1,300. The result is slow-building desperation. The highly controlled early chapters give way to longer passages that find the characters flailing in their last-gasp attempts to find meaning.

Abyss includes a pointed forward by Sorrentino’s son Christopher (also a talented novelist), an added reminder that the book’s characters conceal a flesh-and-blood author, actually dying. Still, it’s hard to accept the reality of Sorrentino’s demise. The writing here is alive—words dance emphatically like the lusty, jazz-spun youngsters who populate Sorrentino’s early fiction. Ultimately, there’s solace to be found in the book’s near-perfect sentences, even when the author is dwelling on the futility of writing sentences.—Adam Wilson

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